The recent article by Sandy Thomas made numerous criticisms of the current government’s policy choice on heavy rail in Sydney, but ended by making a plea with the government to build the North West Rail Link’s tunnels at a width and gradient sufficient to allow Cityrail’s existing double deck trains to pass through it. Not doing so, Mr Thomas argues, would be akin to repeating the mistake of 1855 where different rail gauges were set for different states, forever preventing any movement of trains from one network to another. While his other arguments went so far as being wishful thinking or even approaching conspiracy theories, this is the one point which has garnered the most public support and is the most likely element that the government would change, if it changes anything at all.
I am still undecided as to what I think about this move. It does concern me that this will create 2 separate systems, one of which will eventually go as far as Hurstville, Cabramatta, Lidcombe, and Rouse Hill, running exclusively single deck trains. Will these corridors, or even part of these corridors still be using single deck rolling stock 50 or 100 years from now? The simple answer is we just don’t know, so the safe thing to do it to build them with the ability to convert them in future, just as part of the current network is being converted now.
This plan appears even more absurd when you realise that the savings from the NWRL tunnels will be offset by the cost of converting the line between Epping and Chatswood for single deck trains. In other words, it will cost more than creating a new line with just double deck trains.
Countering these are 2 points in favour that are worth considering. First is that if a Second Harbour Crossing is built under the Harbour, then narrower and steeper tunnels will result in much more significant cost savings than they would on just the NWRL portion. Second, there is nothing to say that double deck trains in the future could be small enough and powerful enough to fit into the narrower tunnels and make it through the steeper gradients. In fact, a cynic could argue that since the tunnels are only barely small enough to prevent existing rolling stock from fitting though them, that this was purposely done to prevent only current rolling stock from using it, rather than any potential future rolling stock. It also deserves remembering that the Epping to Chatswood Line’s tunnels were built too steep for some Cityrail trains. So this is not necessarily as much of a long term line in the sand that the different rail gauges of 1855 were (something which can never really be overcome).
At the heart of all of this is whether an independent single deck metro is the best way to run the NWRL. I think it is, on both cases. An independent line will allow the government to escape the bottomless money pit that Railcorp has turned into, perhaps even result in driverless trains that can achieve very high all day frequencies while allowing the cost savings to be directed at better staffing at stations or more roving security guards/police rather than drivers and train guards (responsible for telling you to stand clear of the doors rather than any tangible security) which are redundant given today’s modern technology. A single deck metro is also appropriate for the global economic corridor that the NWRL will cover and its high turnover passenger nature, preventing dwell times from ballooning out and thus maintaining a high level of on time running.
Making the tunnels narrow and steep guarantees that the NWRL will end up as an independent metro line. It prevents any future government from having second thoughts on the matter. So clearly, if you disagree with how the NWRL should operate, as Mr Thomas does, then the tunnel’s decision is the biggest point of focus for you. Therefore, to justify the tunnels as planned, you need to have no doubt in your mind that this is the best option to take.
And this is why I’m still undecided. I have little doubt that an independent, single deck metro line is the best way forward on the NWRL, but that is not a complete absence of doubt. So while I remain open to the decision to build narrower and steeper tunnels, I am hesitant to endorse it. But I do find myself currently leaning towards it.